Privatizing Prisons?

Jazz Shaw has a troubling post on the blog over at, dealing with a recent suggestion from Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner to freeze new prison construction funding in PA. As the Entitlements Chicken comes home to roost, states are likely to begin looking at their corrections systems for ways to save. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how the typical alignment of political squabbling will produce a good path forward. To wit, Shaw’s two-cent’s worth on available options:

Wagner is excluding the ranks of murderers, rapists and their ilk, as previous, sensible plans have done. And rather than some sort of catch and release scheme, he’s examining alternate options including half-way houses, electronic monitoring for home detention, and evening – weekend release programs (which free up beds) for the well behaved.

All of these have potential, and I hope he’s not too badly excoriated solely for political gain over this. But the one item which seems to have been left off the table is privatization. While such plans have hardly been problem free, some have shown a great deal of promise. Getting the prison system off the state government’s books entirely and turning it over to a for-profit organization which will be motivated to do the job in the most economically efficient manner possible should also be considered.

Let me be blunt: the notion of privatizing prisons is inane – and perhaps insane. Securing the public order is one of the few unquestionably legitimate functions of government, and that includes the administration of punishment for wrongdoers. In fact, in one of his more famous and widely-quoted passages, Saint Paul tells us in Romans 13:4 that it is a sacred duty of the state; that the ruling authority “is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Trading this duty for a price break is grossly irresponsible. Furthermore, it establishes a dehumanizing institution wherein human punishment – human degradation – is undertaken as a for-profit enterprise, which while not as completely evil as, say, the abortion industry, nonetheless flagrantly flouts decency’s law against the objectification of our fellow human beings, in ways more than a little reminiscent of slave trading. Yet, I fear this idea is likely to gain traction within certain circles.

Before this gets too far, I hope we can have a serious public discussion (ha!) about the meaning and purpose of punishment for crime. We seem to take the prison system as being essentially synonymous with the idea of a penal system, as if there aren’t any other serious alternatives except for options that could be bundled under the rubric of leniency – this despite the historical reality that the ubiquitous use of prison time  for punishing crime is relatively new. I realize the prison-focused model was implemented as a humanitarian alternative to older forms of punishment, but I’m not convinced prisons aren’t often very expensive means for completing the social alienation of men (and women) who are obviously already at least tending anti-social – further coarsening them, and facilitating and/or creating a criminal sub-culture that in turn facilitates permanent alienation from whatever virtue “straight” culture can manage to foster in its conforming members.

It’s also true that some people get their lives turned around in prison. But I suppose there are prisons and there are prisons, and again, there are prisoners and there are prisoners. For every prisoner that gets his life turned around doing time, how many become conformed to an anti-social norm that mitigates against their ever being prepared to function properly in virtuous society, and how is this related to the unmistakable and steady decline of virtue in an “outside” culture that lionizes moral transgression as a kind of counter-cultural bravery? At any rate, it should be clear enough that the actual consequences of the prison movement have not produced the results liberal society expected to achieve in its penal system.

Any serious conversation about this issue would require that civic leaders and other concerned parties understand the overall purpose of criminal punishment in American society; its intended goals from both a societal perspective and that of the individual offender; the relation of punishment to rehabilitative purposes in modern penality; the breadth of content of the actual practices of incarceration in America; and the effects of both actual and threatened incarceration on various elements of the population.

No small task that, but America has a ridiculously large prison population, and people are about to start arguing over whether or not we should turn its administration into a profitable business for someone – in order to expand that population even further, without interrupting tee times.